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The end of the beginning at Standing Rock

Locations: News Published

By Jennifer H. Catto
Special to The Sopris Sun

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By Feb. 15,  snow on the ground at the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock – or at what most water protectors by now called the Dakota Access Pipeline Resistance Camp – was melting, fast. When I had arrived to camp a few days before, an uneven sheet of ice covered the terrain. But now, slowly rising waters had reached the wooden floor of the Colorado-donated army tent used by Amos Cook and Phyllis Baldeagle, the Cheyenne River tribe elders Carbondale, Colorado had supported with firewood and supplies all winter.

For years, Amos Cook an inspired spiritual layman, singer, drummer and storyteller, and his wife Phyllis, have acted as surrogate parents for disenfranchised native youth. Two of the youth, Jasilyn and Jasilea Charger, both founding members of the International Indigenous Youth Movement, led the marathon run from North Dakota to Washington, D.C. that brought the movement at Standing Rock, and the camp at Oceti, into national prominence.

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“It’s hard to leave here,” Amos said while we picked through pots, pans, sleeping bags, blankets and pantry items – a massive amount of donations; a massive amount of stuff. It was a slow process deciding what to keep and what to throw away. By now, Ellie Davis, an energy healer and part-time resident of Carbondale, had arrived to help.

“This is where so many prayers were said,” Amos said, looking around the cavernous green tent. “Damn, it’s like I was born here.”

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Around camp, about 300 worn out water protectors were also contemplating leaving Oceti for camps on higher ground. Everyone was aware of the rising floodwaters, and an upcoming Army corps deadline for evacuation, but most were more inclined to move on mother nature’s schedule than the government’s. After all, many tent stakes were lodged in ice. And several “deadlines” for them to leave had come and gone already without incident. Some in camp set up smaller tents up to a mound of earth known as Facebook hill, determined to stay in Oceti no matter what.

In the Sioux language, “Oceti Sakowin” means “Seven Council Fires.” Last year, a historic reconciliation between the seven tribes of the Sioux nation had taken place nearby. Afterward, members of hundreds of indigenous tribes arrived to stand up to 500 years of native oppression, support the sovereignty of the Sioux nation, and resist the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on native treaty lands. Several months later, thousands of supporters from across the country and the world joined them.

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I’d been to Standing Rock once before, during Thanksgiving week 2016, when the numbers in camp had swelled to 10,000 or more. In retrospect, that week had been the movement’s glory time. Dazzling sunshine.A peaceful direct action on the front lines. The successful take-back of sacred ground on Turtle Island. The arrival of Army veterans to support water protectors in numbers that would soon balloon into thousands.

“It’s a calling to come here,” Uqualla, a medicine man from Arizona, said during my first visit to the sacred fire. He was wearing an enormous white headress. His voice was steady and slow.

“We know many of you came, not by making a decision, but because you just knew you were supposed to come.”

Many new arrivals, myself included, looked up at each other. Connecting eyes. Smiling and nodding.

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“Right now, this is the most spiritual place on earth,” Uqualla said. “When you leave here, speak of this place from a place inside you of quiet strength and peace. Do not chase others with the message. You will know the time.”

On Dec. 5th, 2016, thousands were gathered around the sacred fire to celebrate after the Army Corps denied the permit for the easement and ordered a new environmental impact statement. But circumstances change quickly on the Great Plains; and soon afterward, Chairman Archambault II of the Standing Rock tribe, in the first of several acts that raised questions about his allegiance to the movement, directed water protectors to go home and leave what remained of the battle to the courts.

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Thousands of supporters left Oceti during a pounding winter storm. So many things were left behind. Tents. Yurts. Small wooden cabins they had just built and stocked full of supplies to survive the winter. Many intended to come back and remove the structures, or occupy them and stand in support again. But then came blizzard after blizzard after blizzard.

Most of the youth who helped to start the movement stayed throughout the storms. So did Amos and Phyllis. Temperatures plummeted to the negative twenties and thirties, and winds surged to over 40 miles per hour. The focus wasn’t solely on prayer and resistance, it was also on survival. For many weeks Amos and Phyllis slept around a propane heater, along with their grown children and their children’s friends, in a small Mongolian yurt.

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“We are here, and we are cleaning up,” said a tall, native American man in his mid thirties, standing ankle deep in mud next to a loaded red pick-up truck. “I live down river from here; I don’t want all this in the water.”

I didn’t ask the man his name. Since the new administration took office in Washington, the mood in camp had changed. Now the Army Corps, in a reversal of its earlier decision, had cancelled the Environmental Impact Statement and granted the permit for the pipeline. Now there were more suspicions. A new arrival to camp might be an infiltrator helping police profile the remaining water protectors, so there were times when it just seemed friendlier not to ask a stranger his name.

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Actually, many in camp now had handles instead of names. You were more likely to meet a “Smudgebear,” a “Rabbit,” or a “Rider” than a “Harry,” “Dick,” or “Sally.”

“I say we proved something here,” the man said. He put his arms on the side of his truck bed and leaned forward. “We proved that wisdom trumps education. Natives got wisdom. We showed the world, the government is corrupt.”

By now, I’d enlisted a team of young volunteers from Oregon to help Amos and Phyllis with the move. Using picks and axes, it took the team nearly a full day to dislodge tent stakes from ice. Meanwhile, news in camp was that Governor Doug Burgum had proclaimed another mandatory evacuation order, and that a gathering had been set with officials from the governor’s office and the Army Corps near the entrance of camp on the Cannonball Bridge.

At the meeting, a  representative from the governor’s office spoke to a circle of about 50 or 60 people, reiterating the governor’s orders for evacuation, while the water protectors peppered him with questions, and a persistent young woman kept asking him to speak from his heart.

“I’m asking you to look inside, to connect with your heart and to speak from there,” the woman said. “I am asking you to tell us all, all of us standing here, how you really feel about what is happening here. From your heart. From your heart!”

“This is an illegal occupation of army corps land,” the official said. “It’s time to evacuate.” That comment, a complete 180-degree reversal of how water protectors view things, left the group speechless.

Next, Chase Iron-Eyes, an outspoken attorney with the Lakota People’s Law picked up a megaphone and addressed the crowd.

“Their legal institutions are trying to… target the leaders and neutralize the movement. That’s what’s going on. But we have to do this on our own terms. Each of us individually has to look within. We know we gotta move off the floodplain, and we are trying to do that. But it’s logistically impossible to meet this arbitrary deadline the Army Corps has put on everybody! We have a right to be here, and I want to support everyone who exercises their own rights, according to their own decision making.”

When, I left camp on Saturday February 17th, the army tent was folded and ready for its new home, which turned out to be at a new camp near the path of the Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota. Already, new indigenous-led resistance camps for environmentally sensitive sites across the country are in the works.  

“This isn’t the end,” Amos said, sitting near the camp stove after a rousing evening of drumming and prayer. “This is just the end of the prelude. Chapter one is next.”

Welcome home

A few days after I returned to Carbondale, a militarized conglomeration of state and federal police swept through Oceti Sakowin with tanks, machine guns, and full riot gear to evacuate camp. My heart, already wrenched from all I had seen, ached as I watched this surreal, war-like scene at camp unfold live on social media. It was like seeing the greedy mind of a nation chase away its own soul at gunpoint.  I was watching with my friend, Amy Kimberly, who I’d travelled with to Standing Rock back in November. Even on the small screen of Amy’s phone, the show of military force at the camp was astonishing. But so was the dignity of the water protectors who stayed and allowed themselves to get arrested for the cause. These brave people are all on the right side of history, I thought. And I was  proud to have met so many of them – to have just been there.

That was a grief-filled moment, but there were other types of moments up in North Dakota as well. There was the joyful time when, right before I left for the airport, a pristine Black Camero pulled up next to a barricade, and a majestic-looking Batman emerged from the car and opened up his cape at the Morton County police on the ridge. There was the toxic moment of realizing the rising flood waters in Oceti were releasing something poisonous from the ground, perhaps the rat poison the water protectors said that DAPL had been spraying at them from biplanes; the peace of being taught how to ceremonially tan a buffalo hide; the strangeness of driving around in a rental car that might as well have been hand-dipped like an ice cream cone in mud; the serenity of watching agents from the Army Corps and the Governor’s office hold hands in a prayer circle with several water protectors after a discussion about roadblocks; the odd sensation of eating dinner at the bar of the Prairie Knight’s Casino, and looking around me at the myriad of types — the anarchists, the spiritual devotees, the yoga teachers, the natives from all over, the dreadlocks, the varying shades of mud stained clothes  — and feeling like I had dropped into the bar scene from Star Wars; the poignancy of feeling like crying every time I visited the compost toilets, because volunteers were still there, and that meant that the effort to remain conscious and in community was intact until the very end.

And there was that unseasonably balmy day, the first time I arrived to Standing Rock; when, after driving along a rolling, two-lane highway up over a rise, the camp revealed itself to me like a mirage. The tepees, the horseback riders, the multicolored flags, the hay-covered ground — all glowing it that late-afternoon, high plains light that makes pale blues and oranges pop. At the entrance gate, a smiling Native American guy wearing a faded Carhartt jacket popped out of a wooden shack and stood next to a crackling fire. I unrolled my window and took in the smell of wood smoke and burning sage, while my new friend connected his hands in prayer, looked me right into the eye, and said, “Welcome home.”

Published in The Sopris Sun on March 9, 2017.